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For Tom Wheeler, real estate and advocacy are one and the same.

Tom Wheeler

“I’ve said my political work is handing the keys over to a family who’s never owned real estate before, who’s part of a community that is not represented as fully as cis-gendered white folks are in real estate,” he said. “Being involved in advocacy for LGBTQ folks and the intersectionality of real estate has been core to my work.”

Wheeler moved from the Twin Cities to Boise four years ago with his partner to start a real estate team, The HomeFound Group at Keller Williams. Wheeler quickly entrenched himself in Boise’s LGBTQ+ community, using his experience as an LGBTQ+ Real Estate Alliance founding member to host fair housing courses and events, lead Boise Regional Realtors’ first-ever Cultural Diversity Committee, and support local nonprofits aimed at helping LGBTQ+ youth navigate an increasingly volatile social and political environment.

“I got involved with a nonprofit called Clutch in Nampa,” he said. “Clutch was started by two lesbian women who wanted to ensure youth had a place to go after school for a meal and an activity to just be themselves.”

During one of his volunteering experiences, Wheeler met a non-binary parent and transgender child who used Clutch’s after-school services. The parent’s story, he said, made an indelible impact on him as they described the power of having a safe space for their child in a state with lawmakers who’ve upped the ante on proposing and passing anti-LGBTQ+ bills. The latest bill to pass, House Bill 668, will ban Medicaid from covering gender-affirming care starting July 1 — the day after Pride Month ends.

“The women who started Clutch are originally from Canyon County, and Canyon County is the second largest jurisdiction in the state of Idaho,” he said. “It’s also extremely conservative, and working with that nonprofit within the last year was a huge driver for the idea to start something like Canyon County Pride.”

Wheeler’s first step was making sure Nampa’s LGBTQ+ community was on board with hosting a Pride event since most people were used to waiting until September for Boise’s Pride weekend. Getting approval from the drag community was especially important, he said, since performers have faced increased violence in light of harmful and misinformed narratives that drag queens are sexual predators.

“Pride is not Pride without drag queens. One of my first calls was, ‘Hey, How do you feel about it?'” he said. “They were like, ‘Let’s go.’ A lot of them are residents of Nampa and have had to drive from Nampa to Boise to perform and to be seen.”

“When we got their buy-in, we were like, ‘Okay,'” he added. “That was the approval we needed to make sure that our queens felt comfortable to do something like this.”

Once he got the green light from Nampa’s LGBTQ+ community, Wheeler submitted an event application with the City of Nampa. The application required Wheeler to provide an event agenda, which included live music, drag performances, art exhibits, food vendors, booths for local non-profits and voter registration.

“We weren’t necessarily expecting approval because we were transparent in what we intended to do, which was have drag,” he said. “The fact that we have drag at this event [wasn’t immediately] made public. We know that that will be the gasoline on the fire for these groups that categorize and misrepresent LGBTQ+ people as grooming children and that drag is this monstrous thing, even though it’s really just gonna be [a performer] in an Elsa wig doing a Disney song.”

A screenshot of Canyon County Pride’s GoFundMe page.

Once the City of Nampa approved the event in Lakeview Park, Wheeler and event co-creator, Van Knapp, created a GoFundMe asking for community support. Donations steadily trickled in during the first week of the fundraiser; however, Nampa Mayor Debbie Kling’s criticism of the event put a spotlight on Wheeler’s work.

“While this event does not reflect the personal beliefs and convictions of myself, the Nampa City Council, and many living in Nampa who have already reached out to us requesting it be canceled, the advice of our legal counsel was that the City of Nampa must recognize the protected first amendment rights of those scheduling and involved in this event,” Kling said in a May 28 statement.

Although Kling’s statement emboldened some Nampa residents to be more vociferous in sharing their anti-LGBTQ sentiments, it also pushed LGBTQ+ people and allies to put their voices and dollars to good use.

The GoFundMe for Canyon County Pride ballooned to nearly $20,000 — double what Wheeler had requested. He also got a call from a country star, Will Burton, who’d headlined Memphis Pride and wanted to headline Canyon County Pride after seeing Kling’s comments on the news.

“He was the Tennessee Music Award-winning songwriter of the year in 2019. He gave me a call and was like, ‘Hey, my wife and I are straight allies. We’re moving to Nampa from Boise. We saw the news. I headlined Memphis Pride and would love to contribute however I can,'” he said. “He’s been so awesome, and for me, it’s like he gets to be the representation of an ally, bringing us together, playing music.”

After the double-edged firestorm caused by Kling’s comments, Wheeler had to think much bigger for the event, which was going to be a “few park benches pulled together” and “some live things” in a park based on the initial budget of $3,000. Thankfully he had the funds to put more into the branding and logistics for the event, including the need for a stronger security force to handle potential anti-LGBTQ violence.

“Overwhelmingly, we had positive support,” he said. “It feels like there’s so many people in Canyon County who’ve lived in this community for so long, and what I heard is that it’s been just the way things are. Sometimes you need someone from the outside to step in. You can’t read the label from inside the box.”

Although he faces discrimination for his sexual orientation, Wheeler said he realizes he still has immense privilege as a cisgender white male who is a business owner.

“I can’t expect a queer person in Canyon County to go through this process, stand up and put something on like this when there’s fear their employer will fire them, their landlord will evict them or community members will retaliate,” he said. “I’m in a real place of privilege to have the time and resources to spend putting this together because of my line of work. That and other kinds of factors made me feel confident and ready to do this.”

Wheeler’s hard work came together on June 9, with Canyon County Pride attracting nearly 4,000 attendees and news coverage from publications across Idaho.

“At one point, we were unsure whether we would have to stop allowing folks in. We parked 1,000 cars, and the line took 45 minutes. It was insane!” he said in an email to Inman a week after the event. “It was mostly peaceful, other than 20 or so protestors at the front entrance as we expected. We actually thought there might be more protestors.”

“I would totally categorize the event as peaceful and a step in the right direction for civil liberties for LGBTQ folks in Idaho,” he added.

Wheeler said two Nampa City councilmembers who originally opposed Canyon County Pride attended the event — proving that change can happen.

“I am still processing how incredible the experience was,” he continued in the email. “I am completely blown away by the turnout and reception from the community. So many tears were shed by folks who have lived in Canyon County their whole lives and never experienced an inclusive and supporting space like the one. This was certainly a peak experience both personally and professionally.”

With the inaugural event in the books, Wheeler said he looks forward to Canyon County Pride becoming a permanent cornerstone of Nampa as LGBTQ+ people and allies push against the rise in anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and discrimination.

“I think it’s given folks a little hope that there are people out here in this state who are advocating for their rights, whether it feels like it or not,” he said. “Idaho is one of the leading states in the nation with anti-LGBTQ legislation — book bans, drag bans, bans on gender-affirming care for youth and even adults.”

“We already have plans for next year in a different area of Canyon County,” he added. “I think that there’s a lot of confidence in this growing into something that will be super successful year over year.”

Email Marian McPherson

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